Water has its own archeology. Not a layering but a levelling, and thus truer to our sense of the past. What is memory but near and far events spread and smoothed beneath the present’s surface? A green birthday candle that didn’t expire with a wish lies next to a green Coleman lantern lit twelve years later. Chalky sun-motes in a sixth-grade classroom harbour close to a university library’s high window. A song on a static radio shoals against the same song at a hastily arranged wedding reception.
This is what I think of when James Murray’s daughter decides to drain the pond. A fear of lawsuits, she claims, something her late father considered himself exonerated from by a sign warning ‘Fish And Swim At Your Own Risk.’
Wallace Rudisell is the man hired for the job, a task that requires opening the release valve on the standpipe and keeping it clear until what once was a creek will be a creek once more. I grew up with Wallace, and, unlike so many of our classmates, he and I still live in Lattimore. Wallace inherited our town’s hardware store, one of the few remaining businesses.
‘Bet you’re wanting to get some of those lures back you lost in high school,’ Wallace says when I ask when he’ll drain the pond. ‘There must be a lot of them. For a while you were out there most every evening.’
Which is true. I was seventeen and in a town of three hundred, my days spent bagging groceries. Back then there was no internet, no cable TV or VCRs, at least in our house. Some evenings that summer I’d listen to the radio or watch TV with my parents, or look over college brochures and financial-aid forms the guidance counsellor had given me, but I’d usually go down to the pond. Come my senior year, Angie and I began dating, and I found other things to do in the dark.
Though a few times Wallace or another friend joined me, most of the time I fished by myself. After a day at the grocery store, I didn’t mind being away from people a while, and the pond at twilight was a good place. The swimmers and fishermen were gone by then, leaving behind beer and cola bottles, tangles of fishing line, grey cinder blocks bait-fisherman used for seats. Later in the night, couples came to the pond, their leavings on the bank as well – rubbers and blankets, once a pair of panties hung on the white oak’s limb. But that hour when day and night made their slow exchange, I had the pond to myself.
Over the years James Murray’s jon-boat had become communal property. Having wearied of swimming out to retrieve the boat, I’d bought twenty-feet of blue nylon rope. I’d unknot the rope from the white oak, set my fishing gear and Coleman lantern in the bow. I’d paddle out to the pond’s centre and fish until it was neither day nor night, but balanced between. It was then that I always paused in my casting, let myself become part of the stillness. There never seemed to be a breeze; pond and shore equally smoothed. Just stillness, as though the world had taken in a soft breath, and was holding it in, and even time had levelled out, moving neither forward nor back. Then the frogs and crickets waiting for full dark announced themselves, or a breeze came up and I again heard the slosh of water against land. Or, one night near the end of that summer, a truck rumbling toward the pond.
On Saturday I leave at two o’clock when the other shift manager comes in. I no longer live near the pond, but my mother does, so I pull out of the grocery store’s parking lot and turn right, pass under Lattimore’s one traffic light. On the left are four boarded-up stores, behind them the mill’s water tower, like an anchored cloud, blue paint chipping off the tank. I drive by Glenn’s Cafe where Angie works, soon after that the small clapboard house where she and our daughter Rose live. Angie’s Ford Escort isn’t there, but the truck belonging to Rose’s boyfriend is. I don’t turn in. It’s not my weekend to be in charge, as I’ve been reminded more than once. At least I know Rose is on the pill. I took her to the clinic myself.
Soon there are only farmhouses, most in disrepair – slumping barns and woodsheds, rusty tractors snared by kudzu and trumpet vines. I make a final right turn and park in front of my mother’s house. She comes onto the porch and I know from her expression that she’s gotten the week confused and expects to see Rose, is disappointed when only I get out of the car. We talk a minute and she goes back inside. I walk down the sloping land, straddle the sagging barbed wire and make my way through brambles and broom sedge, what once was a pasture.
The night the woman was at the pond, an afternoon thunderstorm had rinsed the humidity from the air, and the evening was more like late-September than mid-August. After rowing out, I had cast toward the willows on the far bank, where I’d caught bass in the past. The lure I used was a Rapala, my favorite because I could fish it on the surface or submerged. After a dozen tries nothing struck, so I paddled closer to the willows and cast into the cove where the creek entered. When I had no luck there I worked the lure around brush piles. A small bass hit and I reeled it in, its red gills f laring as I freed the treble hook and lowered the fish back into the water.
A few minutes later the truck bumped down the dirt road to the pond. The headlights slashed across the pond before the vehicle jerked right and halted beside the white oak as the headlights dimmed.
Music came from the truck’s open windows and carried over the water with such clarity I recognised the song. The cab light came on and the music stopped. Minutes passed, and stars began filling the sky. A thick-shouldered moon rimmed up over a ridge. A man and woman got out of the truck, the cabin light left on. The jon-boat slowly drifted toward the willows and I let it, afraid any movement by me would give away my presence. The man and woman’s voices rose, became angry, then a sound sharp and clear as a rifle shot. The woman fell and the man got back in the cab. The headlights flared and the truck turned around, slinging mud before the tires gained traction. The truck swerved up the dirt road and out of sight.
The woman slowly lifted herself from the ground. She moved closer to the bank and sat on a cinder block. As more stars pierced the sky, and the waxing moon lifted itself over the ridge, I waited for the truck to return, or the woman to leave, though I had no idea where she might go. The jon-boat drifted deeper into the willows, the drooping branches raking at my face. I didn’t want to move, but the willows had entangled the boat. The greying wood creaked as it bumped against the bank. I lifted the paddle and pushed away as quietly as possible. As I did, the boat snagged and rocked, enough that the metal tackle box banged against the side.
‘Who’s out there?’ the woman asked. Then, as if to further confirm, ‘I can see you.’
I did nothing for a few moments, then lit the lantern. I paddled to the pond’s centre.
‘I’m fishing,’ I said, and lifted the rod and reel, feeling I needed to prove it.
I took a single paddle stroke in her direction and let the boat come closer to her.
‘Are you okay?’ I asked.
The woman didn’t answer for a few moments.
‘My face will be bruised,’ she finally said. ‘But no teeth knocked out. Bruises fade. I’ll be better off tomorrow than he will.’
‘The man that hit you?’ I asked.
‘Is he coming back?’
‘Yeah, he’s coming back,’ she answered. ‘He needs me to drive to Charlotte. Another DUI and he’ll be pedalling to work on a bicycle. He won’t get too drunk to remember that. Anyway, he’s just up there.’ The woman pointed a quarter mile up the dirt road where a faint square of light hovered like foxfire.
‘He’s drinking the rest of his whiskey while some hillbilly whines on the radio about how hard life is. When the bottle’s empty, he’ll be back.’
The jon-boat drifted closer to the bank, within a few yards. The woman stood and I dug the paddle’s wooden blade into the silt to keep some distance between us. The lantern’s glow fell on both of us now. She was younger than I’d thought, maybe no more than thirty. A large woman, wide-hipped and tall, at least five-eight. Her long blonde hair was clearly dyed. A red welt covered the right side of her face. She wore a man’s leather jacket over her yellow blouse and black skirt. Mud grimed the blouse. She raised her hand and fanned at a haze of insects.
‘I hope there are fewer gnats and mosquitoes out there,’ she said.
‘The damn things are eating me alive.’
‘Only if I stay in the middle,’ I answered. I glanced up at the truck.
‘I guess I’ll go back out.’
I lifted the paddle, thinking that if the man didn’t come get her in a few minutes I’d beach the boat in the creek cove, work my way through the briars and brush and head home.
‘Can I get in the boat with you?’ the woman asked.
‘I’m just going to make a couple of more casts,’ I answered. ‘I need to get back home.’
‘Just a few minutes,’ she said, and gave me a small smile, the hardness in her face and voice lessening. ‘I’m not going to hurt you. Just a few minutes. To get away from the bugs.’
‘Can you swim?’
‘Yes,’ she said, and nodded toward the truck.
‘What about him?’
‘He’ll be up there a while yet. He drinks his whiskey slow.’
The woman brushed some of the drying mud from her skirt, as if to make herself more presentable.
‘Just a few minutes.’
‘Okay,’ I told her, and rowed to the bank.
I steadied the jon-boat while she got in the front, the lantern at her feet. The woman talked while I paddled, not turning her head, as if addressing the pond.
‘I finally get away from this county and that son-of-a-bitch drags me back to visit his sister. She’s not home so instead he buys a bottle of Wild Turkey and we end up here, with him wanting to lay down in the mud with just a horse blanket beneath us. When I tell him no way, he gets this jacket from the truck. For my head, he tells me, like that would change my mind. What a prince.’
As I lifted the paddle and let the jon-boat drift, she turned to me.
‘Nothing like coming back home, right?’
‘You’re from Lattimore?’ I asked.
‘No, but this county. Lawndale. You know where that is, don’t you?’
‘But our buddy in the truck used to live in Lattimore, so we’re having a Cleveland County reunion tonight, assuming you aren’t just visiting.’
‘I live here.’
‘Still in high school?’
I nodded. ‘I’ll be a senior.’
‘We used to kick your asses in football,’ she said. ‘That was supposed to be a big deal.’
I pulled in the paddle when we reached the pond’s centre. The rod lay beside me, but I didn’t pick it up. The lantern was still on, but we didn’t really need it. The moon was overhead now, bright enough to lay a silvery skim of light over the pond.
‘When you get back to Charlotte, will you call the police?’
‘No, they wouldn’t do anything. He’ll pay though. He had his damn pants off before he realised I wasn’t laying on that blanket with him.’
The woman took a billfold from the jacket, opened it to show no bills were in it.
‘Left his billfold on the bank. He got paid today so what he didn’t spend on that whiskey is in my pocket now. He’ll wake up tomorrow thinking a hangover is the worst thing he’ll have to deal with, and then he’ll reach in his jeans pocket. No billfold.’
‘What if he thinks you took it?’
‘I’ll make myself scarce a while. That’s easy to do in Charlotte. Anyway, he’ll be back living here before long.’
‘He tell you that?’ The woman smiled.
‘He doesn’t need to. Haven’t you heard of women’s intuition? Plus, he’s always talking about this place. Badmouthing it a lot, but it’s got its hooks in him. No, he’ll move back, probably work at the mill, and he’ll still be here when they pack the dirt over his coffin.’
She’d paused and looked at me.
‘What about you? Already got your job lined up after high school?’
‘I’m going to college.’
‘College,’ she said, looking at me closely. ‘I’d not have thought that. You’ve got the look of someone who’d stick around here.’
Wallace waves from the opposite bank and makes his way around the pond. His pants and tennis shoes are daubed with mud. Wallace works mostly indoors, so the July sun has reddened his face and unsleeved arms. He nods at the valve.
‘Damn thing’s clogged up twice, but it’s getting there.’
The pond is a red-clay bowl, one-third full. In what was once the shallows, rusty beer cans and Styrofoam bait containers have emerged along with a ball cap and a f lip f lop. Farther in, Christmas trees and stumps submerged for years are now visible, the black branches threaded with red-and-white bobbers and bream hooks, plastic worms and bass plugs, including a six-inch Rapala that I risk the slick mud to pull free. The hooks are so rusty one breaks off.
‘Let me see,’ Wallace says, and examines the lure.
‘I used to fish with one like this,’ I tell him, ‘the same size and model.’
‘Probably one of yours then,’ Wallace says, and offers the lure as if to confirm my ownership. ‘You want any of these others?’
‘No, I don’t even want that one.’
‘Well, I’ll take them then,’ Wallace says, lifting a yellow Jitterbug from a limb. ‘I hear people collect old plugs nowadays. They might be worth a few dollars, add to the hundred I’m getting to do this. The way business has fallen off, I need every dollar I can get.’
We move under the big white oak and sit in its shade, watch the pond’s slow contraction. More things emerge – a rod and reel, a metal bait bucket, more lures and hooks and bobbers. There are swirls in the water now, fish vainly searching for the upper levels of their world. A large bass leaps near the valve.
Wallace nods at a burlap sack.
‘Those bluegill will f lush down that drain to the creek, but it looks like some good-sized fish left to fry up.’
We watch the water, soon a steady dimpling on the surface, like rain. Another bass f lails upward, shimmers green and silver in the afternoon sun.
‘Angie said Rose is trying to get loans so she can go to your alma mater next year,’ Wallace says.
‘It’s an alma mater only if you graduate,’ I reply, saying it sharper than I intend.
Wallace picks up a stick, scrapes some mud off his shoes. He starts to speak, then hesitates, finally does speak.
‘I always admired your taking responsibility like that. Coming back here, I mean, taking responsibility like that.’ Wallace shakes his head.
‘We sure live in a different time now. Hell, nowadays there’s women who don’t know or care who their baby’s daddy is, much less expect him to marry her. And the men, they’re worse. They don’t think they owe that child anything, don’t even want to be a part of their own child’s life.’
When I don’t reply, Wallace checks his watch.
‘This is taking longer than I figured,’ he says. ‘I’m going to the cafe. I haven’t had lunch. Want me to bring you back something?’
‘A Coke would be nice,’ I say.
As Wallace drives away, I think of the woman letting her right hand brush the water as I rowed the jon-boat toward shore.
‘It feels warm,’ she said, ‘warmer than the air. I bet you could slip in and sink and it would feel cozy as a warm blanket.’
‘The bottom’s cold,’ I said.
‘If you got that deep, it wouldn’t matter anyway, would it?’ she said. After we got out, the woman asked whose boat it was. I told her
I didn’t know and started to knot the rope to the white oak.
‘Leave it untied then,’ she said. ‘I may take it back out.’
‘I don’t think you should do that,’ I told her. ‘The boat could overturn or something.’
‘I won’t overturn the boat,’ the woman said.
She took a ten-dollar bill out of her skirt pocket.
‘Here’s something for taking me out on the pond. And this jacket,’ she said, taking it off. ‘It’s a nice one and he’s not getting it back. It looks like a good fit to me.’
‘I’d better not,’ I said, and picked up my fishing equipment and the lantern. I paused. ‘When he comes back, you’re not afraid he’ll do something else? I mean, I can call the police.’
She shook her head.
‘Don’t do that. Like I said, he needs a driver, so he’ll make nice. You go on home.’
And so I did go home, and once there did not call the police or tell my parents. I had trouble sleeping that night, but the next day at work, as the hours passed, I assured myself that if anything really bad had happened everyone in Lattimore would have known by now.
I went back to the pond, for the last time, that evening. The nylon rope was missing but the paddle lay under the front seat. As I got in, I lifted the paddle and found a ten-dollar bill beneath it. I rowed out to the centre and tied on the Rapala and threw it at the pond’s far bank.
As darkness descended, what had seemed certain earlier in the day seemed less so. When a cast landed in some brush, I cranked the reel fast, hoping to avoid snagging the Rapala, but that also caused the lure to go deeper. The rod bowed and I was hung. Any other time, I’d have rowed to the snag and leaned over the gunwale, let my hand follow the line into the water to find the lure and free the hook. Instead, I tightened the line and gave a hard jerk. The lure stayed where it was.
For a minute I sat there. Something thrashed in the reeds, probably a bass or muskrat. Then the water was still. Moonlight brightened, as if the moon itself wished to probe the dark water. I took out my pocketknife, cut the line, and rowed back to shore and beached the boat. That night I dreamed that I’d let my hand follow the line until my fingers were tangled in hair.
Wallace’s truck comes bumping down the dirt road. He hands me my Coke and opens a white bag containing his drink and a hamburger. We sit under the tree.
‘It’s draining good now,’ he says.
The fish not inhaled by the drain are more visible, fins sharking the surface. A catfish that easily weighs five pounds wallows onto the bank as if hoping for some sudden evolution. Wallace quickly finishes his hamburger. He takes the burlap sack and walks into what’s left of the pond. He hooks a finger through the catfish’s gills and drops it into the sack.
In another half-hour what thinning water remains boils with bass and catfish. More fish beach themselves and Wallace gathers them like fallen fruit, the sack punching and writhing in his grasp.
‘You come over tonight,’ he says to me. ‘There’ll be plenty.’
As evening comes, more stumps and snags emerge, fewer lures. A whiskey bottle and another bait bucket, some cans that probably rolled and drifted into the pond’s deep centre. Then I see the cinder block, draped over it what looks like a withered arm. Wallace continues to gather more fish, including a blue cat that will go ten pounds, its whiskers long as nightcrawlers. I walk onto the red slanting mud, moving slowly so I won’t slip. I stop when I stand only a fishing rod’s length from the cinder block.
‘What do you see?’ Walter asks.
I wait for the water to give me an answer, and before long it does. Not an arm but a leather jacket sleeve, tied to the block by a fray of blue nylon. I step into the water and loosen the jacket from the concrete, and as I do I remember the ten-dollar bill left in the boat. Her assumption that I’d be the one to find it.
I feel something in the jacket’s right pocket and pull out a withered billfold. Inside are two silted shreds of thin plastic, a driver’s licence, some other card now indiscernible. No bills.
I stand in the pond’s centre and toss the billfold’s remnants into the drain. I drop the jacket and step back as Wallace gills the last fish that hasn’t escaped down the drain. Wallace knots the sack and lifts it, the veins in his bicep and forearm ridge up as he does so.
‘That’s at least fifty pounds worth,’ he says, and sets the sack down. ‘Let me clear this drain one more time. Then I’m going home to cook these up.’
Wallace leans over the drain and claws away the clumps of mud and wood. The remaining water gurgles down the pipe.
‘I hate to see this old pond go,’ he says. ‘I guess the older you get the less you like any kind of change.’
Wallace lifts the sack of fish and pulls it over his shoulder. We walk out of the pond as dusk comes on. By the time Wallace struggles onto the bank, he has to pause to catch his breath.
‘You going to come over later?’ he asks.
‘Another time then,’ Wallace says.
After Wallace drives off, I sit on the bank a few minutes. Shadows deepen where the water was, making it appear that the pond has refilled. By the time I’m over the barbed-wire fence, I can look back and no longer tell what was and what is.
‘The Woman at the Pond’ was originally published in The Southern Review.